The Difference Between a Tall Tale and a Folktale

Book on bookshelf.jpg

Scholars don't know who told the first story. It may have been a mother warning her children of the dangers in the woods with a story of monsters or a hunter exploiting his exploits. Scholars generally classify traditional stories created by ordinary people as folktales. A tall tale is a type of folktale that became popular as Americans pushed west in the 19th century.

1 Folktale

A folktale is any story from either an oral or written tradition. Oral stories were ancient tales memorized by storytellers and passed down from generation to generation. Although storytellers preserved the core of the story, they often added their own details and embellishments with each retelling. Literary tales were preserved by priests, travelers, entertainers and writers. They were collected in books and passed from country to country. Storytellers in every country added their own details and created versions of the story specific to their cultures. Modern storytellers keep the folktale tradition alive by retelling the stories in new forms with contemporary details. They inform many television shows, movies and video games.

2 Types of Folktales

Folktales include myths, legends, fables, animal tales and fairy tales. A myth is a story that explains the creation of the world or depicts the exploits of a culture's gods and heroes. A legend is a story that both storyteller and their audiences believe actually happened in the distant past. An animal story features animal characters that behave like people while a fable is an animal story that conveys a specific lesson or moral. A fairy tale is a completely fictional story set in an imaginary land, long ago and far away.

3 Tall Tale

A tall tale is a folktale about a larger-than-life hero solving an over-the-top problem in a humorous or outrageous way. Tall tales typically feature highly exaggerated, improbable details and were created by several cultures, including the ancient Greeks, Romans and Celts. European tall tales are sometimes called Munchhausen tales, after the 18th century German storyteller Baron Karl Munchhausen. North American tall tales were inspired by the enormity of the American frontier, and they were often told as anecdotes about the storyteller's own exploits or his encounter with a frontier hero. Many American workers like cowboys, lumberjacks, railroad workers and steelworkers created superhuman versions of themselves that shared their experiences about how they overcame obstacles. Although tall tales began as an oral tradition, many later tales, such as Pecos Bill, were created by writers for magazines and newspapers, and some of these were absorbed into folk culture.

4 Famous Tall Tales

Many tall tales feature imaginary heroes. Some of these include giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his pet Babe the Blue Ox, cowboy Pecos Bill and African American railroad worker John Henry. Other tall tales feature the exaggerated adventures of real frontiersmen. For example, the 19th century Tennessee frontiersman Davy Crockett was the focus of many tall tales. Even his supposed autobiography, published in 1834, features exaggerated exploits -- in one passage he boasted that he could leap the Ohio River, wade across the Mississippi River and ride a streak of lightning.

Frank B. Chavez III has been a professional writer since 2006. His articles have appeared on numerous websites including WitchVox and Spectrum Nexus as well as in the e-magazine Gods and Empires. He has his associate degree with an emphasis in theater arts from Chabot College, where he received the theater department's Joeray Madrid Award for Excellence in Dramaturgy.